England's new era is so new that its landscape shifted not just day by day but session by session during the series loss to Sri Lanka, a nation destined to be forever underestimated here. Their intent was obvious from the moment Kumar Sangakkara arrived early to play for Durham. Here was an object lesson from a man with a Test match average of 58: never settle, never get comfortable. Durham was uncomfortable, and cold. He appeared briefly on Sky, swaddled in more knitwear than Christmas, and duly made nought. Not much was going to stop him after that. His team had been on the road for months, but they proved that road-weariness can lead to road-toughness too.
So this appraisal should be read with due deference to Sri Lanka and their captain Angelo Mathews, a formidable cricketer. They won the series more than England lost it, and England's faults must not be taken as detracting from their quality.
I've rated the prospects of each player remaining in the side on a scale of excellent to poor, for both the short term (the India series) and long-term (through to the end of next Summer's Ashes).
Short term: Good. Long-term: Moderate*
It has been frustrating to hear the debate over England's future polarised around Cook's captaincy. This is not football, where the single, lumpen answer to failure is to sack the manager. The threads must be separated out: the wider, deeper and more pressing problems are systemic and will continue to exist whoever leads the team. Sacking Cook will not produce a Test-class spinner; that is the job of the spin department at Loughborough, who have failed. It is the single biggest threat to Cook and to England. It has brought about a four-seamer strategy through necessity, and that has chilling implications in a seven-test summer. After just two of them, Anderson and Broad are limping, and now they face five matches in 42 days on chief exec pitches against a stellar batting team.
Sacking Cook will not stop the reverberations from the removal of Kevin Pietersen, either. Instead it has become a lightning rod for discontent and division under which Cook or his successor will labour. This is the fault of Paul Downton, who swaggered out of a job in banking to say he'd never seen a more dispirited team that England at Sydney (perhaps that's because he'd been in a bank for years). It was a piece of grandstanding that did not address the wider reasons for England's decline (the backbreaking schedule; the 300 nights a year in hotels; the bubble; the grind; a generation of players growing old at the same time, and so on). Pietersen wasn't actually the issue but now he is. This single decision has warped everything else Cook has tried to do. The rapid reappointment of Peter Moores, "the outstanding coach of his generation" in Downton's view, added to the feeling that we are back in the days of how well a face fits.
Cook is by nature a conservative cricketer and that will not change. He leads best by example, as his record shows. When he scores runs, England tend to win. His future hinges more on this than on any funky fields or genius bowling changes. There's nothing wrong with it per se: Waugh and Ponting were great attritional captains. The almost unconditional backing he has been given by the ECB has, I think, made him feel that he is responsible for everything. If he can forget about some of that and just bat, he'll be okay.
*As captain. He will be opening for England long after the armband's gone.
Short-term: Fair. Long-term: Moderate
As I blogged here, evidence is so thin that any prediction is mostly guesswork. However, however... Robson's dismissals so far suggest that he is vulnerable in the most destructive way for an opening batsman: he can be beaten on both edges of the bat around off stump. His slightly odd set-up, with a split grip and stiff, hard hands, mean it may not be an easy problem to solve. A lot of top golfers compensate for fundamental faults in their swing with quick and instinctive corrections at the point of impact. Robson has the hand-eye co-ordination to do the same in a cricketing sense, so when everything is working well, he makes runs. The key will be what happens when he is slightly out of sync. I'd guess he'll survive India, but perhaps not the Ashes, but a guess is all it is.
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Good
Ballance also has a very obvious flaw in that his trigger movements set him so far back in the crease that even when he then goes forward, he's not much more than three feet from the stumps. Any lefty is prone to late inswing, and Ballance's position will magnify that. A move to number three will also expose him to high-class bowlers early in the piece, but he appears to have a natural sense of tempo, and he hits the ball hard. There's a bit of Yorkshire dog in him too. He's more Graeme Smith than David Gower, and there's nowt wrong with that.
Short-term: Excellent. Long-term: Excellent
Bell's only problem at the moment is that he is batting so well it's making him loose. He was bowled twice almost walking at the ball (though both deliveries were killers, flicking the top of off stump). There seems to be no real will from Bell or anyone else for him to replace Cook - he is too diffident a character.
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Moderate
I'm in a minority in being unconvinced by Root, but the Sri Lanka series showed only what we already know. He gets big scores at Lord's and almost nowhere else. That might be unfair (okay, it's a cheap shot) but he was worked over with short stuff in both games, and his survival against it seems to be down to chance rather than method. It's unusual in a back foot player, too. He needs to solve it, or his career will deviate from its apparently pre-ordained course.
Short term: Fair. Long-term: Good
Ali's prospects don't reflect his game, rather the problems that England have in trying to balance their team. At the moment he's being used as a spin-bowling all-rounder, when actually he is a high-class batsman who can send down some useful overs. Of the new intake, he has the best technique and looks the most naturally talented. I think he is potentially a top order player. His discipline at Headingley shows that he could probably open, so fine was his judgment of line. That would probably require a mental reboot (although it hasn't stopped Shikar Dhawan), but he could bat at four right now. It would be a great shame if his career stalls because of his bowling, but it could certainly happen.
Short-term: Fair. Long-term: Poor.
His recall was understandable given the callow nature of England's newbies, but he has had some woeful moments already. Most worrying are the two dismissals to short-pitched bowling directed at his body. Is he a shot fighter? His fitness was tested in the field, and by his erm, prior standards, he fell short.
Short-term: Poor. Long-term: Excellent
Jordan will add sunshine to any team. He's exactly the kind of player who will lighten England's mood because he has a natural joy in his game - he's like a young Flintoff, swinging the bat, running in hard, catching flies at slip. The problem is how to fit Jordan, Stokes (and Moeen) into the same team, so he may have to endure a few Bresnan-style rotations before he secures a permanent place. At the moment, neither his bowling nor his batting is quite potent enough to demand inclusion. It would be good to ask a really experienced fast man - a Lillee, a Gillespie - to look at his run-up and see if there is a way to produce more pace without breaking him down in the way that Anderson and Plunkett were broken by the bio-mechanists.
Short-term: Excellent. Long-term: Good.
After an early bout of nerves, Plunkett's return was impressive. Thanks to Jason Gillespie and Yorkshire, we are finally seeing the bowler that Duncan Fletcher thought he would be. It could easily have gone the other way, as it did for Saj Mahmood, so it's good to have someone bowling at almost Mitchell Johnson pace for England. He should be given the new ball at some point, and used in the way that Clarke used Johnson, but that will depend very much on England's other bowlers, speaking of whom...
Short-term: Poor. Long-term: Good.
Broad doesn't seem to have recovered from his injuries, and was down at 80mph by the end at Headingley. It's hard to see him making it through five Tests against India, and I hope that England will consider the rest of his career. Players like Broad and Anderson always want to play and push themselves on, but Graeme Swann's fatal breakdown should be taken as a warning. All three have bowled themselves into the ground over the past four years.
Short-term: Good. Long-term: Good.
Caricatured by his great pal Swanny as England's grouch, his tearful post-match interview at Headingley showed the emotional pitch at which he and most international players are asked to operate. Within it was the real story of the Ashes loss: imagine the turmoil that brutal defeat brought about. We all forget this side of the game, and yet it is always there. I was critical of Anderson in Australia. Often his opening spells would begin at under 80mph, whereas Johnson was coming out and bowling full-pelt from ball one. It transpired that Jimmy was injured but felt he had to fight on. He must have trained very hard to be bowling in the high 80s again now - the first time he's been that quick for a while. He was limping by the end of the Headingley Test, and with Broad also struggling, his workload doesn't look like declining. The inevitable will happen at some point - who knows when. At least the first Test against India is at Trent Bridge...
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